My hopes for Russia
O late, the word “democracy” has figured rarely in the speeches of Russian politicians. Disillusionment with democracy is also rife among Russian citizens, and not only them. A rolling back of democracy after its tumultuous inroads in the late 1980s and early 1990s has been a global phenomenon. There are serious reasons for that, of which the most important has been that the democratic leaders were not always competent to deal with the situation. I am convinced, however, that there is no alternative to democracy.
Different countries come to democracy by different routes and practice its principles in different ways. Russia will have to build a democracy that takes account of and builds on its cultural characteristics, traditions, mentality and national character. There are, however, certain features without which a system cannot be democratic. Some of these are of particular importance for Russia because we cannot yet claim they are found in our present way of life. These are: regular, honest elections ensuring a periodical turnover of those in power; stable constitutional order and a balance of powers between the three branches of government; competition between political parties; respect for basic human rights and freedoms; a just and impartial legal system and a developed civil society.
We in Russia have not yet found the “algorithm” for stable democracy, but that is not inevitable. Even less is it the result of “historical inability” or unreadiness of our people for democracy. “Democracy is not for Russians”—whether that claim comes from the right or the left, it is still balderdash.
In the course of their history, the Russian people have incorporated and defended vast territories, given the world outstanding politicians, thinkers, writers, composers and artists. We are a talented people, capable of great feats of endurance and dogged hard work. Russians, both at home and abroad, achieve enormous success when they are able to work in normal conditions. What is needed to bring out the talent and abilities of our people? We need to improve relationships within society, and we need to improve the political system.
We need strong presidential authority. In Russia, it is crucial that people should trust the president and be able to believe him. But calls to “Bring back Stalin” are a dangerous folly and manifest a lack of common sense. Throughout almost the whole of Russian history, the identity of the man who came to power has been of immense importance. Character, preferences and psychological peculiarities of the tsar, the leader, the general secretary or the president left their mark on everything happening in the country. In the 21st century, Russia must overcome excessive dependence on this figure.
Russia needs a strong, independent parliament. Today, Russia’s parliament is almost constantly criticised, severely, and in my opinion most often justly. On one occasion, a speaker of the State Duma said: “Parliament is no place for discussion.” It was probably a slip of the tongue but, no less probably, a Freudian slip. The Russian parliament, as presently composed, has passed without debate laws that divide society and compromise the state authorities in the eyes of the thinking public. At some point, these errors will have to be corrected.
For the Federal Assembly to become a genuine institution of government, it is essential for the attitude to parliament of the executive branch, of the president, to be changed. Is it really in the president’s interests for parliament to be rubber-stamping decisions as it does at present? Parliament should have a strong and intelligently thought through mechanism for investigations and hearings on the most important issues facing the country.
Today, both chambers of the Federal Assembly in reality consist of appointees. The political parties do not play the role in the life of the country and in parliament that they should in a democracy. Creating genuine, strong, responsible political parties with their own ideology is one of the most important challenges facing our society and our “political class” in the coming years.
We cannot, of course, just ignore the problem of governibility, which is particularly important in the case of Russia. It is a problem because of the sheer size of the country and because of its multi-ethnic character, and it can only be resolved on the basis of federalism. To complicate matters, the kind of federalism that works, for example, in the United States or Germany is not sufficient for us, because Russia includes nation states. Any talk of abolishing them is dangerous and pernicious. The focus should rather be on ensuring that they are as autonomous as possible, while remaining an integral part of Russia.
The problem of governability is closely tied up with another thorny issue: the fight against corruption. After all, if the state cannot deal with this problem it forfeits the trust of the people, which is an extremely important asset.
That is why you cannot just put up with it, as some suggest, asserting that it will never be eradicated in Russia. They quote the 18th-century historian Nikolai Karamzin. When asked on a trip to Europe what people do in Russia, he replied: “Thieve!”
It must be combated, but police measures, prohibitions and prison sentences will not solve the problem. The main weapon against corruption is efficient democratic institutions and a healthy economy that gives people the means to show initiative, to establish their own business, and that curbs the appetites of greedy officials.
Why is it not happening? I have no doubt that here too everything depends on the politics. The current stagnation of the Russian economy, which has a growth rate close to zero, results from the fact that for many years there has been no fundamental change in ideas of how it should develop. Also, the “economic team,” the main theoreticians and those who implement their ideas, is largely unchanged. Monetarist thinking dominates. There is a stubborn reluctance to regulate the economy, whether by stimulating demand, effective use of accumulated reserves or infrastructure projects. The economy remains strait-jacketed by hardline monetarism.
Recently, appeals have more frequently been addressed to the head of state to change macroeconomic policy, but I believe that genuine competition in economic thinking will only be possible within a different political framework. We need political parties capable of putting forward alternative economic programmes, and a periodical handover of political power to make possible necessary changes of policy. In the absence of those changes, appeals to “the man at the top” will do little good.
A crucial role in building a strong modern state in Russia can only be played by the judiciary. Without impartial courts, without justice, the rule of law is impossible. This goal, first called for in the years of Perestroika, is very far from having been achieved. Worse, in recent years there has been serious maladministration in this area. Respect for the legal system has been undermined and it will be no easy matter to restore it.
For Russia, with its vast territory and unique position in the world, the issue of security, its own and that of the world, is always a concern. It is incumbent on her to make a significant contribution to establishing a secure world order. Today, Russia has a major, inalienable and constructive role to play in global politics. It is very important that the international community understands that she must be involved in resolving major global problems and that her contribution is properly recognised and appreciated.
We live in a time of great change. The 21st century got off to a difficult start, full of surprises, and humanity finds itself facing urgent problems. The present generation of Russian citizens, politicians and leaders may finally put our country on the road to stable democratic development. A renewed Russia may become a key participant in renewing the world. She has much to offer: natural and intellectual resources; the lessons from the past which we are, in spite of everything, learning; and an ardent desire to pave the way for a future of peace and justice for new generations.
Reflections of an optimist
My very first memory is of famine. In 1933 I was just over two years old, and I remember my grandfather, Andrey, catching frogs in our small creek and boiling them in a pot. Their little white bellies turned upwards when they were being boiled, but I don’t remember eating them. Much later, on a boat trip on the Seine and to the accompaniment of songs about Paris, my wife Raisa and I did eat frogs’ legs.
I get spasms in the night in August, ever since I worked on the combine harvester as a boy. If I close my eyes now, I can see the wheat in front of me, oceans of it. Especially in June when it grows, the ears form and seed, and then the quail get to work on them.
Life is passing and people are passing away. In a television interview, Vladimir Pozner asked me: “Supposing it was possible, and you were invited to phone someone no longer with us. Who would you like to talk to?” I answered: “I think for Gorbachev everyone knows the answer—his wife.”
Raisa and I were together for 46 years. For 40 of them we went for a walk every day, wherever we were. In all weathers: in blizzards, snow, rain, but Raisa especially loved blizzards. I would say: “No, for heaven’s sake, there’s a blizzard outside!” She would just say, “Come on, let’s go!” and out we would go. I got used to walking in blizzards. When she died I stopped going for walks.
In old age it gets difficult to hold back tears. I take better care of my health now. I want to keep a promise I made to my friends to invite them to my 90th birthday. It was a bit of a cheek, but I think that’s the way to behave, setting goals that challenge you. I slept well last night, but the night before was grim. I took a double dose of painkillers but couldn’t come to an amicable arrangement with sleep. I dozed off towards morning and had the most amazing dream. The day before, I had watched a film about the Civil War. The commentary said 15m people died in Russia in those years. In my dream I was walking with someone and they showed me all the dead people. Countless numbers of them. At the end I came to a bright, open space and asked: “What’s over there?” My guide said: “That’s where the dead go.”
This is from my first book of memoirs, published in 1995, about the land our hut stood on: “There were apple and pear trees of different varieties. Which exactly was of no interest to me at the time. I remember only that they were delicious and, crucially, ripened at different times, so we had them all through the summer and autumn. Beyond the apples and pears were the plums, black and white. Beyond that the orchard gave way to an overgrowth of elm, a real jungle that took up almost a third of the land. I had my own hiding places there, and one time got my hands on a book called The Headless Horseman. I disappeared for nearly three days. My mother was going crazy, not knowing what to think, but until I had read that book from cover to cover I hid away.”
Recently I have found myself going down from the first to the ground floor to do something, but by the time I get there I’ve forgotten what I went down for. I am an optimist. I end many of my interviews by saying it, so let’s finish on that. Life teaches you more than any teacher.
Prospect Magazine, June 2016